About Challenges

Research subject

The Research Area offers a holistic research framework that brings together multiple disciplines to explore human challenges and functions as a platform for the development of larger inter- and transdisciplinary research that is fundamental for a better understanding of current and future challenges and the development of their potential solutions. It will thereby substantially contribute to contemporary discourses on the general topic in the humanities, the social and life sciences, politics and the broader public with the integration of new, long-term and hitherto neglected data from the last 40,000 years. The long-term aim of the Research Area is the sustainable institutionalization of this platform that will enhance the scientific profile of the JGU, Mainz and the RMU area as a research hub for transdisciplinary research in that field.

The central research questions of our profile area are: What do people perceive as a challenge, what does the perception depend on, how do they describe, conceptualize and deal with such perceived challenges, which resources are used to cope with them and which practices are developed for this purpose? We understand challenges as a perspective and analytical category derived from reconstructive observation, with which past irritations, disturbances, disputes, conflicts, threats, crises and even catastrophic events or processes can be examined for similarities and differences. To this end, the members of the Research Area investigate ‘evaluative perception’, ‘reflexive conceptualization’, and ‘potential coping’ as distinct yet interrelated, essential processes in how individuals and communities deal with challenges. Using a praxeological approach, historical, archaeological and textual analytical methods and approaches can be fruitfully combined and developed. Focusing on practices allows the methodological standardization of the heterogeneous empirical foundations of disciplines dealing with the human past, which have very different material remains, textual sources, and environmental datasets, without losing sight of the inherent complexity of each discipline. This enables us to examine practices of perception, conceptualization and coping in new ways. The first goal is to deepen our understanding of how we perceive and cope with challenges in the past; the second is to further develop and evaluate our theoretical framework.

The research program focuses on the overarching question of what humans perceive as a challenge and how they deal with it. In particular, we aim to unearth the strategies and practices developed over the last 40,000 years to overcome challenges associated with living together in communities or directly stemming from that way of life.

As we seek to study perception, conceptualization and coping from a long-term perspective that spans some 40,000 years, it is necessary to link together the various disciplines concerned with studying the human past, drawing on textual and visual sources as well as material expressions and traces of coping practices. Therefore, archaeological studies of artifacts and visual expressions of coping with challenges are combined with philological research on ancient linguistic and textual conceptualizations of challenges. A third research element is the integration of current approaches in the life sciences to the conditions and consequences of perception and coping. Where necessary, specific expertise from the social sciences will be incorporated to identify and cover conceptual and empirical desiderata.

To pursue this research, we have adopted a specific methodological approach. By focusing on practices

–          meaning concrete and identifiable forms of activities and interactions that, as routines and rituals, either oscillate between or combine the poles of intentional and unintentional behavior

–          we employ a praxeological approach. Practices open our field of inquiry by neither requiring nor excluding intentionality. Moreover, the praxeological approach makes it possible to describe not only a status quo, but also a repetitive performative process.

Challenges are negotiated, represented and coped with in an ongoing process between collective orders and evaluations and individual, embodied dispositions. However, these negotiations not only take place in the social realm but are equally conducted through the materiality and temporality of practices. Our research approach will therefore allow us to:

1)        explore the historicization and culturalization of perception, conceptualization and coping in order to identify differences and commonalities across cultures.

2)        compare perception, conceptualization and coping across various time periods and regions in order to examine their (lack of) adaptability, (dis)functionality, and (in)transferability. Ultimately, this will help to evaluate practices that exist today and to formulate potential alternatives.

The research is divided into a Meta Area and four Thematic Areas, which cross-fertilize each other.